Cost of citizenship high?

Alfonso Manzo, a 78-year-old resident of Chowchilla, was all smiles last Thursday after joining 564 other immigrants in becoming U.S. citizens.

"I want to serve my country in any way I can, and do more for my country," said the former bracero.

The best part, was that he didn't have to pay the full $680 cost for the N-400 application.

Manzo worked with a non-profit organization that was able to get his fee waived.

"I didn't even have problems with the test even though I didn't study in advance," said Manzo, who came to the U.S. "under contract four times, and illegally four or five times."

His daughter, María de la Fuente, remembers the cost was only $65 when she became naturalized.

The National Partnership for New Americans believes many of the 8.5 million legal residents -- especially Mexicans -- who are eligible would apply for U.S. citizenship if the cost was lower.

"Fee increases trigger a dramatic decline in the naturalization of less-educated (and likely lower income) immigrants, an increase in the number of years immigrants wait to become citizens, and a change in the national origin of the naturalization population, in particular a relative reduction in those who were born in México," said the authors of the study 'Nurturing Naturalization: Could Lower the Fee Help?'

The report -- prepared by Manuel Pastor, Jared Sánchez, Rhonda Ortiz and Justin Scoggins -- was released last Thursday.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has increased the citizenship application fee three times in the last 15 years: To $95 in 1997, to $225 in 1999, to $320 in 2004 and to $595 in 2007. (There is an $85 biometric fee on top of the fee).

The 'Nurturing Naturalization' report said the high fee is a "deterrent to naturalization."

The authors cited a survey of 526 legal permanent residents eligible for citizenship in which 20 percent cited cost as a prohibitive factor for not applying for citizenship. The survey also showed that 24 percent cited a lack of time and 16 percent cited the lack of English proficiency as reasons not to apply.

Sharon Rummery, a USCIS spokeswoman, said the agency needs to charge fees to cover its costs.

"USCIS is a primarily fee-based organization with more than 95 percent of its budget coming from fees paid by applicants and petitioners for immigration benefits," said Rummery.

The agency can waive the fees for low-income applicants. About 78 percent of applicants who ask for a waiver receive one, according to agency records.

The report's authors said the federal government could encourage more people to become U.S. citizens by lowering the cost.

"One could argue that promoting naturalization is so important that Congress should appropriate more funds to USCIS to make up for any loss in fees," said the report.

Meanwhile, Manzo, the Chowchilla resident, is happy that he has become a U.S. citizen 56 years after he first arrived here from his native El Paso Cotija, Michoacán.

"I didn't have to pay anything," he said. "That ($680) is a lot of money."